Back to the Best of the Russians: ‘Islanders and The Fisher of Men’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1917-18)

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My goodness, but Zamyatin is an unexpected writer. I certainly was taken by surprise when I first read ‘We.’  In fact, I was also surprised on re-reading when I found it surpassed my happy memory (I wrote about it here).  I was taken aback once again when I realised that, not only had he lived in Britain before the 1917 revolution, but he also wrote two stories satirising the English way of life.  Then I read the book; I’m still not quite sure what to make of it.

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I don’t think I’ve read any books from this period with such distain for their characters and setting.  Zamyatin appears to have hated everything about the English middle-classes who make up his cast.  Fortunately for readers, this hatred is expressed through Rould Dahlesque characterisation.  ‘Islanders,’ for example, begins with a portrait of the Reverend Dewley, ‘the pride of Jesmond.’  He’s the author of the ‘Precepts of Compulsory Salvation’ and is evangelical about his invented system for perfect living.  Dewley’s home is strewn with timetables ‘A timetable for the consumption of food; a timetable for days of penance (two a week); a timetable for the use of fresh air; a timetable for charitable activities and finally, among the others, one timetable, out of a regard for decency untitled, which particlarly concerned Mrs Dewley and on which every third Saturday was marked.‘  The book isn’t actually about Mr and Mrs Dewley specifically, nor about their system.  It’s about, well I’m not entirely sure.  A man is run over outside their house and disrupts the timetables for a bit by having to be looked after.  He’s a member of the faded aristocracy who gets a job with one of the reverend’s parishioners and falls for a much divorced dancer.  There’s a Greek chorus of neighbours who appear at moments and equally unexpected appearances of the suffering mother, Lady Campbell, distinguished by her lips ‘they were pale pink, very thin and unusually long; they wriggled like worms, moving their tails up and down.

‘Islanders’ and ‘The Fisher of Men’ don’t read like full stories, they seem more like note book jottings of grotesque characters and situations.  It is far from what I expected after the clinical precision of ‘We,’ but a perfect demonstration of Zamyatin’s wide ranging talents as a writer.  Mixing disgusted observation with an almost symbolist narrative, this book will show you 1917 England as you’ve never read it before.  Now I just need to see if there are any more Zamyatin books out there in translation to surprise me yet again.

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11 Responses to Back to the Best of the Russians: ‘Islanders and The Fisher of Men’ by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1917-18)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I’m very jealous you have this, as it costs an arm and a leg and I’ve never stumbled across a copy! Sounds very intriguing though – I’ve read We and a fair amount of his short works, but this one seems – well, really odd! There is a collection of translated essays that was published once – I have a copy lurking.

    • Sorry for boasting but I found it in the wonderfu British Heart Foundation charity shop in Streatham Hill for 99p. A very happy day and one of those times that show there’s always going to be an evetual pay off for struggling through piles of ’50 Shades’ in any number of 2nd hand book shops.

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  3. Your wonderful post, those enticing extracts, and the comments made me cackle out loud. Karen brought me down to earth with the arm and leg cost, just as I was about to head over to a certain on line retailer. I thought the cruel humour in the extracts was lovely!

    • It’s a very funny and a very odd book – I’d no idea how much the average retail cost was when I bought it though, my recommendation is keep looking out in charity shops; it certainly worked for me!

  4. MarinaSofia says:

    This line just cracked me up: ‘he appears to have hated everything about the English middle-classes’ – reminds me of some Russian friends of mine who’ve moved to England and aspire to join the ranks of those very middle classes. But that doesn’t mean one is blind to any shortcomings… and vicious satire can be quite liberating (to write and to read, at times).

    • I get the impression that Zamyatin hated his time in England, but actually quite enjoyed writing this book. ‘We’ is also biting and vicious, but these stories are a lot funnier…

  5. Sarah says:

    Karen’s ‘arm and a leg cost’ also stopped me in my tracks to find a copy immediately! I’ll be keeping an eye out for this on my book trawls, as it does look brilliant, and in the meantime I shall crack on with ‘We’ which has been languishing on my TBR pile for too long now!

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